Marsha Hunt 1917-2022
Updated: Sep 16
Marsha Hunt, Model, Actress, Activist, Author, and Song Writer:
October 17, 1917 – September 7, 2022
"When injustice occurs, go on with your convictions. Giving in and being silent is what they want you to do."
In a perfect world, Meryl Streep would be known as our generation's Marsha Hunt. If you are paying attention to the movies at all there is a dizzying array of ingénues that get thrown at us every year. Pretty girls of varying degrees of skill who arrive on the scene and then fade just as quickly. It dates back to the silent days when Mack Sennett instructed his people to find him some random pretty girls to be in the movies. Talent was secondary. Occasionally we get a Meryl Streep or a Glenn Close who can shed their skin and replace it with that of a character.
In the golden age of Hollywood, chameleon-like talent was limited to Paul Muni. It was rare for an actress to play leads and various character types. Hollywood was in the business of marketing stars. Sure, some actresses did Comedy and Drama, but they were who the audience knew them to be. Katharine Hepburn was, pretty much, Katharine Hepburn in every situation. It worked. Sure, some leading men played character parts as well. But we like our stars to stay stars, and if they break out and do a character part, it's usually hidden behind makeup, in a fat suit like Tom Cruise as the booty-shaking Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder.
Not so with Marsha Hunt. After a dud or two, she appears at the end of one of my favorite comedies of the 1930s, Easy Living, and she is literally handed the baton, or should I say fur coat, from the film's star, Jean Arthur's hands. That final shot of Easy Living, predicted a career path to stardom. Marsha Hunt had other plans. She would appear in close to sixty films. Playing a dizzying array of characters in her fourteen-year prime Hollywood career. She could hold her own with Greer Garson, Laurence Olivier, Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly, and John Wayne. In one film, Joe and Ethel Turp Call on the President (1939), Hunt ages credibly from 16 to 65 in 90 minutes. In 1939 this just wasn't done.
Marsha Hunt was lauded by her directors and producers as a real babe who could actually act. She told reporters that her time at MGM gave her joy, "they let me play everything!" Marsha also had a brain in her head. Her family moved to New York City shortly after she was born in Chicago. She attended the Horace Mann School, one of two schools in Manhattan, to provide girls with a top-notch and rigorous education. The other choice was finishing school to prepare young ladies for marriage and managing a home.
She turned her nose up at attending Smith or Barnard because they didn't teach drama until the junior year, and she didn't want to wait that long. Fate intervened when she was "discovered" by John Powers, owner of the Powers Agency. Powers was one of the first agencies to supply capable models to appear in advertising. Before that, models worked in clothing stores to show customers what clothes looked like when worn. She became a Powers Girl and took classes at the agency in acting and comportment. She took a trip to Los Angeles to visit her uncle and was again "discovered" while visiting Zeppo Marx, who had seen her in an advertisement and recommended her to Paramount.
Paramount saw her as a run-of-the-mill ingénue. And you can't have too many of them? After a few typical (boring) roles, Marsha's contract with Paramount did not get extended. She made a few films for RKO and Monogram. Finally, MGM "discovered" her, and they knew what to do with her unique talent. She was off to the races!
She joined the executive board of the Screen Actors Guild at their request in 1945. Exposed to labor issues and the changing world of post-war America, she and her second husband, Robert Presnell, a writer, and director, began seriously paying attention to politics. She joined a contingent of Hollywood stars, including Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and John Huston traveling to Washington DC to observe the House Un-American Committee's investigation into the influence of Communism in Hollywood.
My editorial moment about HUAC and Hollywood: The committee got their initial information from lists of donors supporting the Republicans against Francisco Franco's Fascist Nationalists. They gave money, clothes, food, and weapons. They even sent the Abraham Lincoln Battalion to help fight with the Republicans. Franco received his support from Adolf Hitler, and I guess I don't have to tell you how that worked out. Communists and Socialist groups organized most of the donations from the United States. Unfortunately, they kept records. Even today, if you donate to one politician, every politician asks you for money. A lot of Hollywood careers got ruined as a result of their participation.
Back to the show: Due to this visit to Washington, Marsha Hunt and her husband's names appeared in Red Channels as Communist Sympathizers. This effectively ended the prime Motion Picture portion of her career. But it did not finish her activism. In fact, it awakened it. She became more involved in the world. After losing her child days after its birth, she and her husband became foster parents. Fostering is a big deal if you don't know. After a trip to South America, Marsha became one of the United Nations' first celebrity ambassadors. Like Angelina Jolie is and Audrey Hepburn was. Her focus was world hunger. She had her work cut out for her.
Using her Hollywood connections, she produced a television special focusing and starvation in the third world. (I know that's not the PC termination, but I'm doing my best.) The show featured Bing Crosby, Paul Newman, and Jean Simmons. (Not the guy from KISS.) She became active in her neighborhood of Sherman Oaks, California. For those who don't know, Sherman Oaks is part of the north side of the Hollywood hills and part of the south end of the San Fernando Valley. She founded the Rose Cottage, a shelter and daycare center for homeless children in the Valley.
In 1957, after almost a decade of being blacklisted, Marsha began to act again. She appeared in seven films in three years. Marsha announced that she was semi-retired in 1960. Her fans refused to let her go, and she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame that same year. (It's at 6658 Hollywood Boulevard, which is between North Cherokee and North Las Palmas on the south side of the street, a block and a half east of The Hollywood Guinness World Record Museum.)
Perhaps her announcement renewed interest in her because television beckoned, and she begrudgingly appeared in a wide variety of television shows, from Gunsmoke to My Three Sons to Marcus Welby, MD. She was even in an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation!
She played Timothy Bottoms' mother in Dalton Trumbo's 1971 Johnny Get Your Gun. Trumbo was blacklisted as well, and there is a movie about him, Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach, which features an Academy Award Nominated performance by Bryan Cranston as the title character, that tells his story. Metallica made a music video for their song, One, that featured clips from the film. A single shot features Marsha. She is a goddess of all media!
Never one to waste time, Marsha wrote a book about fashion, The Way We Wore: Styles of the 1930s and '40s and Our World Since Then, published in 1993. If you are interested in owning one, be prepared to drop a couple of hundred bucks to secure a copy. She took up songwriting as a hobby and eventually produced an album containing just two of her compositions, Tony London: Songs From the Heart with the Page Cavanaugh Trio. Marsha never stopped working in theater and even appearing in SAG-approved student films until 2008. Some retirement!
Marsha was a tireless advocate for mental health, gay rights, and helping anyone in need. She continued her work for various United Nations programs until the 1990s.
In 2015 Roger C. Memos directed a documentary about her life, Marsha Hunt's Sweet Adversity. I recommend it. (A shameless plug, in my Emmy Award Winning film I made with Robert Levi, Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, I could not get Harry Belafonte in my film! I tried! I begged! But he's in Marsha's film, and that's awesome. I seethe with jealousy)
On a sad note, her husband passed in 1986 after forty years of marriage. She stayed in their home in Sherman Oaks until September 7, 2022, and left the planet at the age of 104. Which is a pretty good run by any measure.
Here is a short clip of Marsha and actor/singer Bill A. Jones, who was on Glee and many other television shows, singing her composition, Here's to All Who Love. (I hired Bill to read the voice-over on two separate industrial projects. He's a real pro.) This clip is from Marsha Hunt's Sweet Adversity. When the clip was originally released in 2013, it went viral.